How'd you get that job? Althia Raj speaks

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How'd You Get That Job? Wednesday, May 07, 2014 View Count = 28141

How'd you get that job? Althia Raj speaks

Althia Raj is The Huffington Post Canada's Ottawa Bureau Chief. She was kind enough to tell us about her job last week while the Samara team was in Ottawa for our book launch.

Have you always been interested in politics? What do you think sparked that interest?

I've always been very interested in politics. My parents were never engaged in partisan activity but they were very interested in politics, history, civic engagement, etc. I remember watching the news with my father when I was very small, and my mother still cuts out newspaper and magazine clippings she thinks I might be interested in. We have very lively dinner table debates. 

Once you decided you wanted to be a journalist, did you know immediately that you wanted to focus on politics?

I originally wanted to be a foreign service officer. Two stints at DFAIT and the Canadian Mission at the United Nations later, I realized that memo writing wasn't for me and that I missed the interaction with the public. I like sharing what I've learned with others and trying to find engaging ways to inform readers/listeners/viewers or to get them to care about something. It's an interesting challenge. 

I fell into journalism a little by accident. I was a big CBC radio fan and I applied for a Gzowski internship when I was at McGill. A recruiter I met while I was at the CBC ended up introducing me to some folks at the CBC in Ottawa and that's really where I got my start.

Room 350-N, known as "The Hot Room," is where the Parliamentary Press Gallery does their work on Parliament Hill

How exactly did you become an “Ottawa Bureau Chief”? What path brought you to this specific role?

I was working at Postmedia in the national bureau really enjoying what I was doing there and just coming off the rush of covering the then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's campaign when HuffPost approached me. The more I spoke with them, the more interested I became in joining something new and exciting (first truly web newspaper on the Hill), the possibility of building a bureau out of nothing, and working with talented and interesting people who were passionate about engaging readers in new ways.

What does a day-in-the-life of an Ottawa Bureau chief look like?

Every day is different. But usually I look at my phone, Twitter, Facebook, then newspaper’s websites and aggregators when I'm just starting to open my eyes around 6ish. Next, I check emails from the evening before, look at my calendar, send my teammates on the political file a list of stories I think we should/could chase/publish today and I inform them what I plan to do with my day. Then it's coffee, and I scan the paper newspapers. Depending on whether the House is sitting or not, I will go into the office, file an ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy Request) or two that the newspaper scan made me think of. Scanning a few other sources (I will keep some of my secrets!), I touch base with some key sources and then get on with my day. Often, news happens and you react. I hear about this or that and try to get leads to triple confirm information from sources who don't know each other. Sometimes it's locking myself up with journal articles, building databases or reading legislation. I keep my eye on Twitter and email, of course. Anything interesting that pops on my radar that I don't have the bandwidth to do and can't be held up on for a few days, I pass along to my colleagues. I also keep a notebook for story ideas (you never know when they might happen). During the week, I try to lunch or dine with staff, MPs or Senators so I can get a sense of what's going on around me. (It helps that I actually like the people I work with). 

"The glamorous Hill journo office setting" 

What has been your favourite moment in this job?

It's a pretty great job. Sometimes, it's exhausting. Too many stories, not enough hours in the day. But I really enjoy it and I think that shows in our coverage. We're geeks who like to have fun with politics. 

What skills or expertise are required for this job?

Good story sense, people skills. I'm pretty shy in groups but I genuinely like people so I'm okay with one-on-one and small groups. Willingness to work long hours, to be flexible and to keep digging. Being able to identify new angles. Being comfortable, independent and secure enough with your own story regardless of whether other reporters are following the same path. Multi-tasking is essential. Nowadays, having a thick skin is also important. And of course, engaging with readers either through social media or the comment sections. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Unlike most of my colleagues, I don't have a journalism degree. But these days, it seems like the easiest way to get in the door. I'd personally suggest getting a degree in something and then a graduate degree or diploma in journalism. Otherwise, I don't think the secret is any different than any other job: find something you like to do, work very hard, be kind, identify ways that you can differentiate yourself from your colleagues. For me, that meant looking for stories where others weren't looking. It means building good sources, finding people I can trust and who will trust me in return. Being honest and transparent with readers, the people I cover and of course, your bosses. Delivering what you say you're going to deliver is important, but you should also be able to say: I looked here, I followed this lead but it's not worth a story or the story is completely different. Sometimes, it's even better!

Based in Ottawa, Althia Raj was previously a national political reporter for Postmedia News. She has covered Parliament Hill on and off since 2006, writing for QMI Agency and producing for CTV and for CBC Radio's The House. Althia began her career at CBC in Montreal after graduating from McGill University. She was also an intern on the Hill with the Parliamentary Internship Programme. She is an occasional contributor with CTV, CPAC, CBC radio and CBC The National's At Issue panel. She can be found on Twitter under @althiaraj

Interested in working in politics? Read our other "How'd you get that job" interviews:

Samara talks to an MP's Parliamentary Assistant

Samara talks to Cabinet Minister Michelle Rempel

Samara talks to the Director of Operations and Outreach for Justin Trudeau

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